The Beijing Summer Olympic Games are long since over, and the vortex of criticism, demonstrations, ceremonies, pollution concerns, acclaim and gold medals that swirled around China for months has subsided. In the process China’s world image was changed. By deftly using the games to draw a symbolic line between its past and what the world must hope will be a brighter future, China managed to project itself globally as a nation reborn from poverty, war, revolution and self-inflicted catastrophe and to rebrand itself as an emerging superpower approaching fuqiang (wealth and power).
If China has finally managed to escape much of its old stereotype, what else remains for it to do during the next stage of its incomplete Long March?
The Historical Dilemma
Ever since the arrival on the south China coast of superior British gunboats in the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese intellectuals and leaders have had to struggle with the challenge of their country’s weakness and the question of how to restore it to a state of fuqiang. This quest gained more urgency as the West forced China to sign a series of unequal treaties. China reached a nadir of self-confidence after imperial Japan defeated the Qing Dynasty in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and went on in the 1930s and ’40s to occupy large portions of China. Japan was part of the sorry process of foreign powers guafen (slicing up China like a melon).
At the turn of the last century Yan Fu, a reformist intellectual who grappled with the conundrum of why the West possessed such abundant “Promethean energy” while China remained paralyzed by lassitude, despairingly cried out in an essay titled “On Our Salvation,” “Unless China reforms, it must die!”
During the twentieth century, this yearning to see China regain stature and respect became an almost obsessional leitmotif in political thought. Indeed, the state of humiliating defenselessness to which China had been reduced was one of the motor forces driving Mao’s extremist revolution. Beneath all the ideology and turmoil Mao engendered, what even he sought was a new socialist fuqiang–or at least a simulacrum of such wealth and power–as a way to re-imbue the Chinese people with a sense of pride in their country. Despite his egomaniacal destructiveness, he did recognize their thirst to see China restored to centrality and greatness.
Having sidelined Mao and all he propounded, China has nearly “reunified the Motherland” (with Hong Kong and Macao returned and only Taiwan still aloof), enjoyed almost two decades of 10 percent annual growth in GDP, become one of the world’s most dynamic trading partners, modernized its military significantly, launched an ambitious space program and hosted a largely triumphant Olympic Games. It has not only reached a major milestone in its century-and-a-half hegira from poverty and weakness to wealth and power; it has also managed to relaunch itself before the world in one of the most spectacular public relations campaigns in history.